The first national conference on farmer groups with Natural England was a ‘swell’ event. (Updated Sept 2021 as Defra commit more funding to the land manager facilitator fund)
The room was awash with the exchange of ideas. Chests swelling with pride as farmers restored stone curlews to farmland, yellowhammers to hedgerows, brown trout to brooks, pollinators to headlands. All while getting together over beers in their local pubs to talk habitat for wildlife.
Applause was noticeably loud for those farmers, land managers, facilitators who had picked up the baton and run with it for wildlife. Nope, not just ‘quarry’ species some might have an specific interest in, but species they wanted on their land, to be proud of. Many of which also happen to be of biodiversity concern.
Sir John, who triggered the idea of landscape scale conservation (Making Space for Nature), wrote on a slide that he found ‘the Farmer Clusters initiative so brilliant’ for moving in the right direction towards land sharing for people and nature.
Farmer clusters represent a tipping point towards the positive – ‘a consortium of the willing putting back more nature than is being taken out’.
Rob Shepherd (Hants farmer) told us about land managers taking back ‘ownership of conservation’s destiny’ during his deadpan delivery. ‘Just don’t mention buzzards and badgers’ when getting farmers around the table to identify insects and stick £1 for every hectare they own in the #farmercluster kitty.
Humour within honesty abounded in refreshing doses. Which helped us to learn what went wrong, as much as what went right. Not every one knew who their Natural England adviser was, where to find the nearest cluster (see website here) while Heidi Smith, FWAG facilitator, told us that farmers will only hear it from other farmers.
That’s if they actually talk to each other. As Andrew Paul reported from Suffolk, some shook hands for the first time over a meeting convened under the eye of respected ‘farmer’ chair or facilitator, in a ‘safe space’ – warmed either by an Aga in a kitchen, pint in a pub or walk in a field.
Many spoke about harder to access uplands, far from the range of Breeding Bird Survey recorders. Data recording is important. Huge tranches of temperate soggy uplands in Nidderdale were receiving attention from groups of land managers. A term I prefer, as it includes those managing woodland and un-farmed areas, bringing gamekeepers in from the cold of culling crows to the warm fold of counting linnets.
‘Farmers have had enough of being told what not to do‘ Tara Challoner, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust facilitator, told us bluntly. Farmer groups are a way of bringing joy back into conservation by choosing and listening to experts: forging ideas together and producing data for the ogre who holds Defra’s purse strings: the Treasury.
Of course some of the mainstream media there wanted titillating stuff on badgers to pique their readers’ interest. But this fresh idea is all about land managers (aka people managers) all sharing experiences, airing concerns, and working quietly on adventurous new ways forward for wildlife conservation.
Addendum Result of 600 votes polled on how to best deliver wildlife
Update July 2020 – feed into ELM consultation by 31 July 2020 (closed)
Update Sept 2021 – New facilitator funding opens Dec 2021. (Informal feedback ‘keep red tape to a min and ensure RPA pay on time’)